Disclaimer: All the normal rules apply.  Do not read if you'd be offended by material of a sexual nature; if local laws prohibit you from reading this, read no further.  Do not copy or reproduce, in whole or in part, without permission of the author, Nicholas Nurse.  All material is copyright Nicholas Nurse 2003.  All individuals depicted are imaginary, and any resemblance to real persons or events, express or implied, is purely coincidental.

Tristan's Redemption
By Nicholas Nurse

Chapter Fourteen: Betrayed

My cell phone rarely rang nowadays.  With the sole exception of Jared, I'd managed to alienate myself from my friends yet again in less than a week.  Well, hell.  The bulk of them deserved it: Garrett, for being the worst best friend since Brutus; Liza, for tagging along and siding with Garrett after all the years we'd been friends; Taylor, for trying to break Seth and me apart; and Julian, because he'd avoided me all week long.  I wasn't even sure what exactly had happened on the phone that evening—I'd lost consciousness immediately after our conversation and when I woke up I wasn't sure what I'd said—but my inability to remember didn't erase what must have been said.  Whatever it was, Julian had given me no chance to ask; rather, he so thoroughly avoided me that I never saw him once for the rest of the week.  Sarah had confronted me about it, snapping at me that she'd seen Julian wandering the halls alone at lunch and that she knew it was my fault—how, I never did ascertain; she must've talked to him, though it wasn't like Julian to point fingers.  I noticed she snapped at Taylor, too, so obviously she'd noticed that they weren't talking much either.  The long and short of that one was that I'd ripped Sarah up one side and down the other with my tongue, and although she gave as good as she got, I finally screamed at her to go sacrifice a small animal if she was so upset.  She'd stormed off after that, cursing in what I'd swear was a language not fit for the mouths of mortals.  I'll admit that more than once I worried that I'd suddenly find myself doubled over in pain and, in a quick cut like in an action movie, some imaginary viewer would see Sarah, a malevolent smile on her face, thrusting a barrette into an effigy of myself.

Something Sarah had said bothered me, though.  In one of her tirades, she'd shouted, "You don't even know how to deal with it when you're pissed!  Grow up, Tristan.  You can't keep cutting friends out of your life, because sooner or later you're going to run out of friends!"  I shouted back that that was bullshit, but later, when I was calmer, I realized that from a large group of close friends, I'd whittled that number down to two, and neither of them were people I'd been friends with at the beginning of the year.  What did that say for my ability to maintain a friendship?  Nothing good, of that I was certain.  

So when my phone started ringing as the December sun was setting behind a thick layer of clouds, I snatched it up, figuring that it could only be one of two people: Jared or Seth.  I glanced at the caller ID; it was Seth, which figured, since today was the day he was supposed to get back to LA.  I waited till the third ring and then answered.  "This is Tristan."

"Hey you," Seth said.  "I got back late last night.  What's going on?"

"Not much," I said.  "It's been a bad week."

"What's wrong?"  I paused.  It was a rather solicitous question for Seth.  I'd gotten used to his general nature; nothing ever seemed to truly bother Seth, so I think that the emotion of concern in general was kind of foreign to him.  He was an epicure, living his life from moment to moment; the past was over and the future yet to come.  Seth had an ability to enjoy life, seize it where most people could only grasp feebly, and it was this more than anything else that I found most attractive about him.  Well, the fact that he was built like a Norse god helped, too.  And those mysterious eyes, slanted and dancing above his angled cheekbones . . . alright, so there was a lot to like.

"Fights with friends," I said.  "A lot of back-and-forth bickering and whatnot."

"I see."  He was quiet for a moment and I could hear the low growl of his Audi.  

"Where're you going?"

"I'm heading back to campus.  I forgot to tell you that I have finals all this week, so I'm gonna be pretty busy.  Oh!  The reason I called."

What, he needed a reason?  I said as much.

"Well, of course not, but I'm going to be busy this week cause of studying, so I won't be able to call you much.  Turns out I'm busy the weekend you're supposed to come up to San Francisco again."

"Oh."  Was it just me, or did everything just get a bit more dull?

"So I rebooked the flight for the weekend after this one instead.  That cool?"

And suddenly, rainbows and sunshine and happy singing voices.  "Yeah, even better, actually.  It'll get me out of here for awhile."

"Excellent."  I heard the sound of a door open and then close.  "Listen, babe, I gotta go.  I'll call you tomorrow, okay?"

"Alright; have fun studying."

"Of course," he said dryly.  "Stay out of trouble."

I laughed.  "I should be telling you that."  For a moment, Taylor's words popped into my head and I imagined Seth in the center of a vague and disturbing tangle of naked flesh.  I dashed away the image.  "Talk to you later."  I snapped my phone shut and set it down, then let my head slide into my hands.  Why had Taylor planted even a seed of doubt in my mind?  Damn him for that.  I needed to get my mind off of things.  I grabbed my katana off the wall and headed for the gym and lost myself in the twist and turn of body and blade.  But that could only take me so far and when I finally let the tip drop to the ground, the emptiness crashed in all around me, dark and suffocating like tipping into the event horizon of a black hole, and I struggled to breathe.

*    *    *
Needless to say, the next meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance was . . . uncomfortable.  I wasn't talking to any of the other officers.  Sarah wasn't talking to Taylor or myself, Julian refused to look at Taylor and me, and Taylor ignored every single one of us.  To make matters worse, Liza and Jared had both decided to attend, since a storm had forced a cancellation of swim practice.  The tension pulled the air around us so tightly that there was almost a palpable hum in the room.  

Julian did his best to surmount the tension.  Luckily, after last week's altercation with the Christian club members, none of whom had decided to attend, the kids were more than willing to lead discussion themselves, which left us to twiddle our thumbs and pretend to look interested.  I noticed Julian furtively glancing Taylor's way when Taylor's head was turned; Sarah watched Julian in those moments, her eyes filled with something I couldn't quite identify.  Taylor pretended like nobody existed, but I could still feel a furious heat rising off of him whenever he glanced my way or Sarah's.  Sarah just folded one leg neatly over the other under her dress—a rich purple that, when the light didn't hit it, appeared black—and folded her hands in her lap, as though by uncurling her body she'd burst into violent and irrevocable motion.  Each of us were tightly-wound springs that looked ready to fly apart at a moment's notice.  It was fortunate that the members of the club were blithely unaware of the internal strife that threatened to leave the officers clawing at each other's faces like rabid badgers in a cage.  We each contributed to the debate, which centered around the Bible—several kids had brought in their family's Bibles to argue points—but when we did speak, it was through clenched teeth and tensed jaws.  Near the end of the meeting, I noticed Jared nudge Julian and ask him something, to which Julian shook his head.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him mouth the word "Later" to Jared.  What was going on there?  Jared leaned over to Liza and whispered in her ear; she had a look of mild surprise on her face, but nodded slowly.

When the meeting let out, Julian invited all the members back next week and then waited until they'd all filtered out, still chatting and laughing as they walked down the halls in ones and twos.  After the last of the kids had gone, Julian and Jared left together without a word to anyone else.  Liza waved at Taylor and Sarah before making her own way out to the parking lot.  Taylor huffed off alone—and Taylor huffy was like anyone else raving and frothing at the mouth with rage—while Sarah turned and left soon after.  Her brisk walk signaled her anger almost as much as did her stiletto heels digging into the ground with each step.  If she stomped off any harder, she'd strike oil.  I said a curt goodbye to Ms. Heimdall and walked out, stiff-legged and bristling.  What was up with Jared and Julian?  I couldn't very well walk up to them and ask, but since neither of them had cars I figured I was bound to catch up with them sooner or later.  I headed toward the parking lot, but they weren't anywhere within sight; angrily, I drove home.  There was a bottle there, and oblivion.    

*    *    *

I had realized I was gay when I was twelve.  For years when I'd dreamed of beautiful things they were always wrapped up in the gentle budding of masculinity, that quivering cusp between boy and man.  I found it everywhere in nature, that expectant pause where life teeters at the edge of a precipice, as in the sudden jagged cleft in a mountain or the upthrusting of a rock out of the sea, a quiet accumulation of miles-high storm clouds, flattened at their tops, or the sweep of wind through bending grass, rolling sinuously through fields like time.  In each of these places within I'd been accompanied by a child, an ageless lad made of everything that is young in this world.  His touch was hot, as molten metal was hot, and his smile was the flash of something bright being born.  In those dream places we'd run and, though he never looked the same from moment to moment—sometimes with hair the color of a moonless sky, sometimes the color of new wheat, or eyes of twilight, the coming of a storm—he was always the same, twirling and spinning through a place more vast than ever existed in my waking moments.  Here was a world filled with youth, refuge from the dying lands in which we moved, where every single moment brought us one step closer to the inevitable, timeless night.      

The one time I had seen my ageless companion in the waking world I'd been in a small bookstore in one of the small village areas of Laguna.  There was a black-and-white photography book on the shelf in front of me.  I'd slid it off the shelf and, somehow feeling as though I were doing something wrong, I'd shielded the book as best I could with my body as I sat down in a huge cloud of a chair.  I opened the book and flipped through the pages of nudes.  I came to one of a boy perhaps a year or two younger than myself, lying down and reading.  The photograph wasn't graphic—it was a side view, the boy's face in profile, the pose innocent.  My breath had hitched in my throat and the air was suddenly filled with the smell of pines and rushing water.  There, in the graceful arch of back and curve of raised leg, in the flawless uniformity of flesh and the slight upturning of nose, as though in permanent amusement or delight—there he was.  In that moment, I knew I loved him, no matter what form he took, be it the lithe and breathless form of youth, or aged and bent like a structure too long in use.  I knew I would spend my life searching for this boy who ran with me in my dreams and yet seemed ever before me while I muddled through cities where slow time held sway.  I stared and, as I gazed at the picture of my companion frozen in time, the world around me felt uncomfortable, like an itchy jacket several sizes too small, and I wanted to shake myself free of this alien place and join him in the grassy fields of my mind.

It was later, after darkness had fallen and my parents had come to collect me, that I came to the gentle conclusion that I was gay.  I was in love with a boy, and what was more, I was in love with a boy whose face I did not know.  But he existed; I was sure of that.  If I found him tomorrow, walking along the damp sand and leaving no footprints (his step was that light) or if I found him decades hence, gray and stooped but yet with eyes that still flew like bare and suntanned legs over streams and hills, I knew I would love him.  It was a shocking realization, but less so for the patient way in which it revealed itself to me; I accepted it as one accepts an unassailable truth: the sky will always be blue and the sun will always rise to banish the stars.

Over time, I came to see my homosexuality as simply another facet of being; just as I was gray-eyed, or deft of hand and foot, so too was I gay.  It was neither something I railed against or something I took as the core of my being; rather, it simply was.  I was one of the lucky ones, I guess; some people were unable to come to terms with being gay, just as those people would always fear some facet of being.  For me, it was much simpler than that.  

Now, though, I felt as though I would vomit.  From that one day forward, I knew that this hour would come.  Some day, I'd have to tell my parents, and though I accepted being gay quite readily, that by no means meant that they would.  I had no idea what to expect; I'd never truly sounded them out on this issue.  My plane for San Francisco left in the morning, though, and things with Seth had become serious enough to warrant telling my parents the truth.  I couldn't lie to them—not for Seth's sake or for anyone's.  They deserved the truth.  The problem was that if they didn't accept the truth, if they didn't accept me . . . the thought filled me with a rushing of dread, and I imagined myself sleeping on the streets, living from meal to meal and watching the clothes rot off of my body.  I fully appreciated that I had a long way to fall if they cut me off, and my fate rested in their hands.  I had nowhere else to go.  Oh, sure, I could fall on the mercy of my friends for a time—assuming they would even have me, since at current time I'd winnowed that number down to a mere two—but that could only last for so long, and then what?  I could move in with Seth, but without question, my place was here, at least until high school was over.  And as much as the part of me that cried out for independence wanted to deny it, I needed my family.  My parents were away often, and they may have left me to my own devices many a time, but the bottom line was that I loved them and the twins.  They were a constant, always somewhere between the backdrop and the foreground, the stage and scenery against which I played out the little drama of my life.  Well, they were more than inert things, but my relationship with them was stable, solid, something upon which I could fall back when things with my volatile friends turned to shit.  They were the foundation from which all else in my life sprung forth.

What would they say?  What would they think?  What would they do?  Even now, my father was downstairs, reading reports from work, his dress shirt rolled neatly at the sleeves and his gold wire-rim glasses slipping off of his nose.  There would be music, probably Gorecki or Philip Glass, softly in the background, and the whitish glow of a computer screen behind him.  He liked to work with paper, though, when he could, so he'd be at the big mahogany desk with stacks all around him, lit yellow in the dim light from the desktop lamp.  The twins and I had bought him that lamp, a Tiffany original, for his birthday several years back.  How would he take it when I walked into the room and dropped the bomb?

And my mother.  She who had to out-blasé me in order to oust my secrets.  Despite her long hours, she was always at the parent-teacher conferences, or cheering alongside my dad at the swim meets, or standing clenched and nervous at Shotokan competitions.  I remember when I had broken my leg and something like panic had risen floodlike in her eyes, only to be beaten down in the next moment in the immediacy of maternal instinct.  She'd carried me off the karate mat herself, refusing aid, and barraged the EMTs with orders and questions—she who had studied to be a doctor, and yet ended up an entrepreneur alongside my father.  Everything I had in this world and everything I was I owed to them.

Fuckohgodfuck what would they say?  I couldn't keep lying to them.  I'd lied to them for seventeen years—well, that wasn't entirely true; five years.  And it was really more an omission of truth than anything else.  Still, though, there was no ducking around the fact that at some point when it truly began to matter, they deserved to know.  I would stand and face their judgment, and although they were progressive people, I had no idea how they would stand to have their only son, the bearer of their surname and firstborn child, be gay.  Here there would be no wedding, no church bells, no rushes to the hospital because oh my God Mrs. Eliot the younger was in labor! and finally, irrevocably, the dream of white picket fences and two-point-four grandchildren and a dog would come to an end.

Ooh boy I think I needed to use the bathroom.  Again.  If I didn't make it down there soon, someone would come up and investigate why the toilet had flushed five times in the last half hour.  At least I hadn't thrown up.  I was close, very close.  I flushed the toilet again—six—and stumbled for my room, wondering what it would be like to never see these sparse walls again.  My mind skittered away from the thought like a rat from a suddenly-lit room.  

"Tristan!" I heard my name hollered up from the stairwell and I jumped.  I nearly shouted in surprise.  "Dinner's ready!"

Food?  Now?  When all I wanted was to have this over with, or a swift death?  I almost laughed at the thought, but then realized that the kind of laughter that threatened to bubble over was the sort you heard in the movies, when crazy people howl at nothing, faces distorted as human faces never should.  I wished there was someone I could call.  Why wasn't there anyone I could call?  Oh, yeah, because I'd pissed them all down the drain.  Seth was studying, so his phone was off, and Jared—well, Jared didn't even know.  Well, it was now or never.  My bag was already packed in the corner of my room and I could hear the sounds of glass clinking from the dining room.  I stood at the top of the stairs and looked down.  The room was dark but for one strip of light laid down by the kitchen lights, seen through the doorway.  I held on to the rail for support; my shoes made a loud slap slap slap noise against the wooden staircase and the wooden floors.  I paused again at the door of the kitchen, through which I could see the dining room; from the shadows I saw my mother and father and the twins, and there the fifth seat, empty but with a plate of food in front of it.  I wondered if they'd ever set that place again.  One of the twins said or did something funny and they all laughed.  Already I could feel this dreadful separation, as though there were a pane of glass here and I was looking through a window at something not mine, a shopper who sees something in the storefront that is far beyond his means.

My mother half-rose from the table and called me again.  That was it.  The moment was broken and I passed through into the room.  I sat down quietly in the chair.  I could not eat.  Even the smell of food turned my stomach.  I pushed my plate away.  "What's wrong, Tris?" my dad asked, watching me set the food aside.  "We heard the toilet flush upstairs.  Are you sick?"

"A bit," I said.  The twins leaned in to hear me and I realized I'd whispered.  

"Do you want something for your stomach?" my mother asked, getting up.  "Here, let me get you some water."

"It's fine," I said, and this time my voice was far harsher than I'd intended.  I had no control over myself.  Everyone paused at the tone in my voice and my mother sat back down again.

"There is something more," she said quietly.  "Girls?"  She looked at the twins.  "Are you both done?"

"I am," Sandy said, but Isolde wanted dessert.  My mother let them go anyhow after promising to call Izz back down for ice cream after the table had been cleared.  The girls scooted back from the table, leaving, and the momentary lull was broken.

My mother turned to me.  "There is something bothering you," she said.  "Something that has been bothering you, off and on, for about two months now.  Am I right?"

"A bit closer to a month and a half," I admitted.  Now that the moment had come, I was shaking.  I was happy to let her lead, in a way, but in another this had to be of my own volition.  

"Why didn't I know about this?" my dad asked.  He looked at my mom.  "Alyssa?  What's going on?"  My dad didn't like being kept in the dark about things.  He needed a sense of control, and when he didn't know things, he felt like he was losing control.  

I had to make sure he didn't have that feeling if this was going to work at all.  "I'm going to tell you, dad," I said before my mom could say anything in response.  "Mom only knows because she's good at reading me.  We're alike, you know, she and I."  More alike than you'd like to think, I added sourly to myself.  Again my stomach flipped over.

"Does this have to do with your fight with Garrett?" she asked.  Damn, but she was shrewd.  

"Oh, I knew about that," my dad said, looking a bit more at ease.  

"In a way," I said slowly.  "Garrett . . . well, he's not so important to me anymore.  He couldn't . . . he didn't . . . he's just not a good friend.  There were things he just didn't get."

"What do you mean?"  My dad leaned forward in his chair a bit.

"There were things he didn't understand.  He walked away from me and he didn't come back.  I let him go."  The memory of it seared through me like it hadn't in weeks, and the intensity of it was all the stronger for its absence.  It was as though there were two agonies within me, fighting one another to be the first to tear me apart.

"What didn't he understand?" my mother asked.  I glanced at her hopefully, but I could tell from the look on her face that she had no idea what was coming.  Neither of them did.  Oh, God, this was so hard.

"He didn't . . . " I could barely go on.  "He couldn't . . . "  Tears stung the corners of my eyes.  My parents' eyes were on me like floodlights on a prison escapee.  They burned on their way up, the words, and once said they were never going back in.  I put my hands on the table, along the edge, as though by holding on I could keep from being torn away from this place.  My knuckles were white where I gripped the wood.  "I told him I loved him."  There.  My mother got it.  I could tell because the glass she was holding slipped out of her hands and shattered against the kitchen floor.  The noise was sudden and deafening, and in the silence that followed I could hear the sound of disbelief and then my world being ripped down the center.

"You mean . . . " my father looked confused.  "Like that?"

I nodded.  "Like that."  Shit, my eyes stung.  "I'm gay, Dad," I said.  I couldn't meet his eyes, so I tried to look at my mom, she who understood me so well, and I found I couldn't look at her either.  Neither of them spoke.  The lights over the table grew dim and I could hear a roaring in my ears as of something rushing away from me.  My hands fell away from the table.  I couldn't sit here in this foreign place.  "I—I'm sorry," I whispered, then got up and ran.

I sat for an hour in the darkness of my room.  Nobody came in.  I didn't turn on any of the lights.  I opened my window, stared out at the lawn, and seriously contemplated just letting go of the sill and allowing my body to tumble out.  It might hurt, but it would be over quickly, especially if I made sure to land on my head.  What stopped me was a desire to know, finally, and I closed the window, opened the door and crept down the hallway and the stairs to my father's study.  The door was closed, but his light was on and I could hear his voice, raised.  I moved closer and listened, my whole body trembling.  "I mean it," he said.  "I want him out by Monday.  Gone.  Give him time to pack his stuff in a box and then he's out.  I won't have it, you understand."  Then noises too low to hear, and again, "No!  He has until Monday."  Then the sound of something slamming—it sounded like my father's hand on his desk—and I'd heard enough.  I didn't even wait to hear my mother's reply before I got up, my breath hitching in my throat, and ran up the stairs.  I grabbed my bag and headed for the front door, my shoes loud on the wood.  I didn't care.  I threw open the front door and ran out into the night, down the driveway, running as quickly as I could.  I crossed the grass of the lawn, stumbling once and catching myself before I fell, and up over the gates.  I couldn't breathe.  When I got out into the street, I turned and looked back at my house.  It was dark, the only lights visible the ones in my parents' room and in my dad's office, and as I watched my legs suddenly gave out and I fell to my knees in the middle of the street.  

I want him out by Monday.  Gone.

My eyes burned and I angrily held myself still, willing the tears not to fall.  Those were words that would be burned into my memory until the day I passed from this earth.  

He's out.  I won't have it, you understand.

A cloud passed over the moon and threw the house into shadow.  There was nothing for me there.  There was nothing for me anywhere.  My head sagged and I felt the grit of the asphalt against my brow.  My shoulders heaved, once, twice, before I got control of myself and stumbled to my feet.  

The road was empty.  The night was cool, but not cold; I was glad of that, as it seemed I would be sleeping outside.  The lights of Laguna and Newport Beach sparkled below the hill and I heard, distantly, the roar of a plane taking off from John Wayne.  The plane tickets were in my bag.  I would go to San Francisco.  I clung to that as a drowning man clings to a piece of wood.  San Francisco.  Seth was waiting for me.  Seth would understand.  I took a ragged breath.  All I had to do was get to the airport tomorrow morning—I would call a taxi.  I had plenty of cash in my bank accounts—enough to get a taxi and pay my own way until I could find a job.  Seth would help.  I walked down the hill, my step slow—I had nowhere to go; why rush?—and my mind focused northward.  The moon rose higher in the sky as I walked aimlessly down and toward the city.  What time was it?  I reached into my pocket for my cell phone, then realized I'd forgotten it.  No matter.  Who would call, anyhow?  Not my parents, certainly.  Not if they wanted me to leave anyway.  Seth knew what time to meet me, and I had no other friends but him.

Jared.  I had Jared.  His house was a block away, and certainly it wasn't too late.  I could stay there.  I could stay with him and say goodbye before I left for San Francisco.  He deserved that.  There was no one else I cared to say goodbye to, but I would miss Jared.  I walked, lost in thought, and soon found myself staring up at the Luceri house.  It was dark, except for lights around the back of the house, so I let myself quietly into the backyard and stared up at Jared's window.  His light was on.  I looked around; how to get his attention?  There was nothing I could throw up at the window, and I couldn't very well call him without knowing what time it was.  Or risking having Liza answer.  Her light was off, but that meant nothing.  It was a weekend; likely she'd be out all night.  With Garrett.  

Resolutely, I looked at the vine trellis next to Jared's window.  Sliding my bag higher on my shoulder, I grabbed the trellis and started to climb.  It trembled, but supported my weight.  Hand over hand, I climbed slowly up to Jared's window and then, balancing myself carefully, I looked into his window.  I almost fell, but felt no fear; it didn't really matter very much, after all.  Jared was lying on his stomach on his bed, nose in a book.  He was wearing shorts and an old t-shirt and his hair was wet.  He must've just showered.  I paused there for a moment before rapping on the window lightly with my knuckles.  Jared gave a little scream and fell off the bed.  His head appeared at the window, his eyes wide.  

"Jared!" I called, waving a hand.  The trellis creaked.

"Tris?" I saw him mouth.  The window slid open.  "What are you doing?"

"Jared," I said, suddenly finding myself very tired.  I wanted to just let go.  "Can I come in?"

"Of course!"  He pulled off the screen and helped me through the window.  "What're you doing here, Tris?"

I sat on the edge of his bed and was quiet for a minute.  I let my bag slip to the floor.  "I had nowhere else to go," I said.

"What do you mean?" he asked, popping the screen back into place.

"I'm leaving home," I said simply.  "My parents don't want me there."  I stared at nothing.  Would everyone hate me for being gay?  Garrett had rejected me.  My parents disowned me.  Would Jared do the same?  I couldn't tell him.  If he threw me out too, I didn't think I would be able to take it.  It didn't matter anyhow; I would never see him again after tomorrow.  He would never have to know.

Jared, bless his heart, didn't ask any more questions for the moment.  No "Why?" or "Where are you going?"  Instead, he sat down beside me on the bed and after a moment put a tentative hand on my shoulder.  I reached up and grabbed his hand and held onto it as I had held onto the dining table earlier.  I would have to let go, though, just as I had let go of the table.  But not now.  Now, I hung on to this last remnant of what I'd once had here.  We stayed like that for a long while.

I never knew how much time passed, but presently Jared's head was against my shoulder and his eyes were fluttering closed.  His hair had dried.  I could hear his breathing fall into the gentle pattern of sleep and I let him stay there for awhile longer, shifting my body until I had an arm around his slender form and his head cradled against my chest.  He didn't wake up, or if he did he fell back to sleep immediately.  I sat, thinking, breathing in these last moments with him.  The room was comfortably warm, the light a soft golden glow, the only sounds the rhythmic sighing against my breast.  I breathed in the floral scent of his shampoo.  As I looked down at him, I felt the same feeling I'd known when Garrett had turned and walked, then ran, away from me that night on the beach.  It was different—this time it was me leaving, not Jared—but my heart burned with a love so painful in its sundering that it felt as though I were ripping away a living and vital part of me.

Finally, when I felt myself growing sleepy as well, I shifted, removing my arm.  Jared stirred in his sleep.  "Time for bed, Jared," I said softly as he opened his eyes.  

He nodded sleepily and smiled at me.  "Room on the bed," he murmured, gesturing beside him.  Jared had a full-size bed with enough room and pillows for the both of us.  He slid under the covers and I quickly changed into my pajamas and joined him.  For a moment I wondered what his parents would think, but his door was locked and they were long abed.  I reached over and turned out the light.  The events of the evening had drained me of energy, and within moments I found myself asleep.

*    *    *

When morning came, I woke suddenly.  The first thing I noticed was that it was cold.  The sun was just starting to rise and the dawn air was as chilly as the night had been.  Then I noticed that at some point in the middle of the night, Jared had snuggled against me for warmth; his head was on my shoulder and one arm was thrown across my chest.  I smiled quietly to myself.  At least this last night was like this, I thought.  Warm and quiet and secure in each other's company.  I had about an hour yet before I had to be ready for my flight, so I relaxed, watching the room turn from black to gray to blue and listening to the quiet breathing of the boy beside me.  Finally, when the sun had taken possession of the sky and the room was white in the morning light, Jared stirred.  He opened his eyes, focused on me and smiled.

"Good morning, honey," I said sarcastically.  His soft smile changed into a grin and he slapped my arm.  So much for a peaceful morning.  Time was short, however, and I didn't want to waste it.  I felt something huge and sad inside of me as I looked into Jared's green eyes and realized that these would be the last hours I spent with him.  "Listen, I have a little less than an hour before I have to leave, so let's make the most of it."

"I don't understand, Tris," Jared said, sitting up in bed, his back against the wall.  His hair was disheveled and he shook his head to get it out of his eyes.  "I didn't want to ask last night—I could tell you were upset—but what's going on?"

I sighed and closed my eyes.  "My parents and I got into a big fight.  Later, when I came down the stairs to see what they were doing, I heard my dad talking to my mom and saying that he wanted me to leave by Monday."  I took a deep, shuddering breath.  "So I left.  I walked here.  Seth bought me a ticket to San Francisco some time ago, and today's the day I leave.  It was supposed to be a weekend trip, but . . . it looks like that's my only place to stay, really."

"What!?"  Jared was not happy.  I knew he wouldn't be.  "You're leaving for good?  To San Francisco?"  Wow.  I didn't know he had it in him to get this mad.  He was nearly shouting.  "Why?"

"Because it's the only place I can go," I said truthfully.  "I can't go home; everyone is mad at me except for you, and I can't stay here—"

"Why not?" Jared countered.  

"Because . . . I can't impose on your parents like that," I said.  "And your sister is mad at me.  I can't do it, Jared.  I'm sorry."

"Bullshit," he said.  "You know my parents'll let you stay, Tris.  They love you to death, man.  And you can patch things up with Liza—"

"No!"  Perhaps there was a bit more vehemence in that than was necessary.  "Listen, Jared, I can't do that.  No, I won't do that.  It wouldn't be right, or fair.  You know that.  I can't ask them to do that for me."

"So, what, our friendship is just something you can drop?" Jared asked.  His voice wasn't as loud, but it shook.  "Is that what I mean to you?"

"No, Jared," I said.  "Believe me when I say that I'm going to miss you like crazy.  You're my best friend.  But I can't stay.  There's nothing for me here."

"I can't believe this," Jared said angrily.  He got out of the bed.  "I can't believe you're gonna just—just take off like this is some stupid adventure."

"I'm sorry," I said.  God, I found myself saying that a lot.  I felt very small and pathetic for a moment, because I knew that I was running out on my best friend.  But what could I do?  I meant what I had said.  I couldn't impose on the Luceris like that; everything within me said that it was wrong.  I got up and went into the bathroom connected to Jared's room.  I dressed and came back out.  Jared wasn't looking at me.  He was staring out the window.  "Jared?"

He didn't turn.  "What was the fight about?" he asked.

I was silent for a long while.  I knew I couldn't tell him.  I couldn't end our friendship like this.  I didn't want him chasing me out, too.  Maybe it was selfish, maybe it was cruel, but I didn't want my last memories of Jared Luceri to be of him telling me to leave.  "I . . . can't say."  

"Don't you trust me?"  My heart nearly broke on those words.

"Of course I trust you," I said.  "There are just some things . . . "  I fell silent.

He turned to look at me.  Tears were streaming down his face.  "Please, Tris," he begged.  "Please, Tris, don't go."

I bit my lower lip fiercely and closed my eyes lest I, too, broke down.  "I don't have a home, Jared," I said.  

"This can be your home."  He looked like he wanted to step toward me, then thought better of it.

"I already told you.  I can't impose like that."

"Why not?" Jared asked, his voice breaking on the words.  He was holding onto the windowsill for support and his shoulders were heaving with the force of his weeping.  "What is it—you don't want to ask because you think we can't afford it, because we don't make as much as your parents?  Because you think we're poor?  Is that it?"

I couldn't believe Jared even thought that.  I was totally at a loss for words.  "I thought so," he said.  "It's like we're not good enough for you or something."  He finally collapsed back down onto the bed.  "You don't trust me and you don't want to stay here," he managed to get out through his sobs.

I didn't want to leave him, not like this, but time was short.  I steeled myself, willed my eyes to stop burning, and tried to see through the watery haze of tears that I refused to let fall.  "I think I'd better go," I said.  Jared didn't even look up.  He was crying so hard I wasn't even sure he could speak.  "I'm going to miss you, Jared," I added, my voice hitching on the last words.  I opened his door.  "Goodbye."

I let myself out, shutting the door behind me.  Nobody else was awake; I walked silently down the carpeted hall and let myself out the front door.  I walked for a few blocks, until I found a pay phone, then called for a taxi.  It came within moments and I told the cabdriver to take me to the airport.  I turned around and looked back at the life I was leaving behind.  I could see my parents' faces, distant like something viewed through fog, and then the sobbing, broken little form of the best friend I was leaving behind.  Finally, finally, the last barriers I'd been holding in place, the proud walls that kept the world outside, fell apart.

I wept the entire way to the airport.

*    *    *

John Wayne Airport was a little ways inland, but planes leaving the airport usually banked out over the ocean, where they could gain altitude without passing noisily over the sleepy homes of coastal Orange County.  As the plane passed over Laguna, I imagined I could pick out individual details: first my school, then the place where once I'd lived, and finally I imagined that somewhere down below there was a blond-haired boy watching and perhaps waving as the plane flew over the water and turned northward.

I stared out the window throughout the entire trip.  The airline attendants stopped to ask me if there was anything I needed, but when I didn't answer they turned away and didn't come back.  The flight was over with quickly and soon we were cutting through the clouds and I saw my new home.  San Francisco was covered in stratus clouds, as San Francisco often is, and the entire city had a gray pallor to it that made me clench my jacket more tightly around my body.  When we landed, a light drizzle was misting the city.  Seth was there as I stepped through the gate.  "I called you," he said.

"I left my phone behind," I said.  "Seth, we need to talk."  I couldn't tell him right away that I was planning on staying.  Through the trip, when thought pierced through the blanket of gray sadness that filled my mind, a sort-of plan had cobbled itself together.  I figured I could ask Seth if I could stay with him for a week or so, then maybe get a small studio apartment in one of his parents' apartment complexes here or in Berkeley.  I could pay a few months' rent before money started getting tight.  By then, hopefully I'd have a decent job.  School would have to wait, apparently.  I figured I could just take my GED and get that over with, then maybe take night school at a community college after I got off work.  I'd tell Seth all this later, though.  Right now he needed to know what had happened; more importantly, I had to tell someone before I lost it again.

"Sure," he said.  "Did you check baggage again?"

"No," I said.  "Everything I have is right here."  Literally, I thought bitterly.  "Let's go.  I need to get out."

"What's wrong?" he asked as he steered me in the direction of his Audi.  I moved by rote, putting one foot in front of the other, seeing little of anything.

"I fought with my parents.  They wanted me out, permanently.  I left."

Seth didn't say anything for a moment.  "What did you fight about?" he asked.

"I told them I was gay."

"Oh."  A flicker of pain passed over Seth's face.  I was surprised; it was the first sign of anything even remotely resembling sadness or upset I'd ever seen from him.  He didn't speak the whole rest of the way through the airport.  Finally, when we got near his car, he put on his sunglasses and turned to me.  "Listen, I know just what you need."

"What's that?" I asked.  I was ready for any solution.  I needed it.

"We'll go out and get completely wasted tonight," he said.  "We'll hit the clubs and just have a good time.  That'll take it all away."  

It sounded like as good a plan as any.  Drunken oblivion was about as good as any other kind of oblivion, I figured.  "Okay."

"Do you still have the fake I gave you?"

"Yeah, it's in my wallet."

"Good, you'll need that.  I know just the place to take you.  Let's get back to my place."  

Half an hour later we were shirtless and groping each other on the bed.  I needed this.  I needed my mind off of everything that I was leaving behind.  I needed to forget the life that I had burned away.  I needed to forget the sobbing face of the only person who would miss me.  I could forget here.  I could lose myself in the motion of Seth's body against mine, in the exploration of flesh and the tangle of sheets.  I let Seth slide my jeans off.  I gasped, unable to breathe, as he licked and nibbled at my nipples and trailed kisses down the center of my chest and abdomen.

There were no words because we were entering a place where words were meaningless, small things, human constructs that would confine this act that was older than human thought or speech.  This time, I did not hesitate when Seth slid off his own pants and tossed them beside mine; I did not flinch when he began to toy with the waistband of my boxers, nor when he placed his hand on my erection, which strained as I did to be free.  This time I recklessly plunged my hand into his bikini underwear and grasped him, tugging, enjoying his face as he threw his head back and groaned his desire.  My other hand ran across his muscled chest and stopped at each nipple.  I felt the cleft of his butt and the rippling muscles of his back.  And all the while I stroked him, bringing him closer to climax and using each upward thrust to forget a little bit more of who I once had been.

When Seth ripped off my boxers and put his hot mouth on me, that's when I knew there was no turning back.  I watched his head slide up and down and suddenly the room grew so hot I thought my hair would burn and the sheets light aflame.  He stopped for a moment, kissing me on the lips, and I moaned against him as I kept a steady pressure on my slow stroking.  When he moved back down, it was as if each up-and-down stroke took another painful memory and set it in a high place where I couldn't reach.  Finally, I couldn't last another moment; my back arched and my mind went blank and I stared at the ceiling, at his eyes, at nothing at all as everything within me tensed, drained out of me and left me shaking and cold with the force of what I had just felt.  Simultaneously, my hand tightened involuntarily and Seth came across my chest and hand, screaming in ecstasy, and as his voice died away I realized his had not been the only cry of release.

Afterward, we lay together on the bed, Seth with his arms behind his head and me still trembling with the memory of what had passed through me and into him.  The sheets were tangled around our legs, our clothes were scattered about the room, and the rain pattered gently on the window.  "Pretty good, eh?" he asked, turning to me with a smile.  God, those eyes were beautiful.

"Yeah," was all I could say.  I listened to the sound of the rain, hovering between blissful dozing and wakefulness.  The remnants of Seth's orgasm were drying on my chest.

"Wanna try something else?" Seth asked.

"What are you thinking?" I asked.

"I want to be inside of you," he said.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  The screech of mental brakes.  Granted, Seth wasn't gigantic, but I didn't think I was quite ready for that step.  "I don't know," I said.

"I'll do it gently," he said.  "It won't hurt a bit."

"Do you have a condom?" I asked, stalling for time.

"Yeah, I do, and lube too," Seth replied.

"Let's wait," I said.  "Let's go have fun tonight and see what happens."

I could tell he was angry when I said that, but thankfully he didn't push the issue.  We spent the rest of the day at the financial district, first eating lunch and then shopping.  He didn't ask about what had happened back home and I didn't talk about it.  I had to tell him my plans at some point, though.  I wondered if he'd be willing to let me stay even if I wasn't comfortable with the idea of going further in bed.  Then I slapped myself mentally for thinking that; despite what Taylor had said, Seth wasn't like that.  He would understand.

We ducked into the Saks Fifth Avenue in Union Square and I bought some clubbing attire, since I hadn't brought anything with me.  I bought a watch, too, to replace the one I'd left behind.  I felt as though I were shedding a skin.  There was a new me underneath, one that wasn't battered and cast off.  Soon, I hoped, that new me would emerge fully and I could fling aside the memories of what had been.

As the day grew long, Seth spent some time on his phone organizing the evening's events.  When we got back to his flat near the Haight, we spent about an hour cleaning and getting the place set up for what Seth said would be "a few friends."  While we did so, I brought up my plans.

"So . . . my parents threw me out," I said.

"What are you planning on doing?" Seth asked.

"I thought I'd find a place up here," I replied.

"You're welcome to stay here as long as you need," Seth said instantly.  A glow suffused me; it was akin to the one I'd felt earlier that morning.  

"Thanks, Seth," I said.  "I was hoping I could find a job, actually, and then get my own place—maybe if your parents have an opening . . . "

"Well, I'm not sure, but I'll see what I can do."  Seth sounded reluctant and I deflated a bit at that, but the fact that he'd invited me to stay was enough.  I reached up and kissed him on the lips.  Several minutes passed as we kissed and we were finally interrupted by the ring of the doorbell.  Seth broke away from me and opened the door.  A few boys came in and Seth introduced me to them.  "Tris, this is Lionel," he said, gesturing at an incredibly handsome black guy a few years older than me.  The next boy was just as beautiful, though where Lionel was dark he was a tall Nordic beauty.  "This is Orri."  The last two looked like brothers, or cousins at least, and Seth introduced them as Michael and Gabriel.  Soon after they'd made themselves comfortable and poured themselves drinks, the bell rang again and a few more guys trickled in.  Seth left the door open after that and by the time we were getting ready to leave for the club, there were about twelve people there, including my arch-nemesis, Rory Semel.  He pointedly ignored me and just as pointedly gave Seth a full kiss on the lips.  I shrugged it off.  He might have his little imagined victories, but I had Seth's love, and that was enough for me.  Rory would lose that battle, in the end.

I'd changed into the clothes I'd bought earlier that day, and several of the boys complimented me on my choices: tight black slacks and a black collared, button-down shirt, which I left half-unbuttoned at the chest.  The shirt was silk, flared at the sleeves, which I left unbuttoned and pushed back slightly, and decorated with stripes and patterns in white, silver and several shades of gray.  I had bought a silver-and-black necklace that rested just above the hollow where my shoulder-bones joined below my neck and around my wrists were my new watch, which of course was also black and silver, and the bracelet I always wore.  The boys were gathered around the table taking shots, so I wormed my way in and tossed back four or five shots of vodka as well.  Rory looked at me.  "So, the little boy's decided he can drink with the big boys," he sneered.

I pointedly stared at Rory's crotch.  "If you're an example of the 'big boys,' I'd hate to see where the little boys are," I replied.  Several of the other boys laughed, but not too loudly; I got the feeling that they didn't really want to cross Rory.  He, of course, was dressed like the village slut yet again, with a tight pink t-shirt that rode several inches above his navel; his jeans, meanwhile, buckled several inches below that.  I left it at that and we made preparations to leave.  I stumbled a bit as I walked down the stairs and Lionel and Seth steadied me.  Perhaps I'd had those shots a bit too fast.  Ah well, I thought fuzzily as we made our way through the crowded streets.

We took the bus to the club.  When we got out, I took it in with a shudder: the crowd was decidedly different than the last club we'd gone to.  Leather and bulky men were everywhere, and the club itself was small and dark and filled with a cold blue light.  I glanced up at the name: "Alcatraz."  I pulled out my ID with some degree of trepidation and followed the others inside.  The room spun a bit as people jostled me about, and my stomach did a backflip.  I'd have to be careful if I wanted to stay on my feet.  The room was filled with men dancing to some of the most disturbing music I'd ever heard: a low, rumbing bass beat layered over with lighter percussion and high-pitched electronic screams.  Most of the men were wearing leather or tight black clothing; many of them were fifteen, twenty, even thirty years older than myself.  As I walked unsteadily from the front doors to the bar, not really feeling up to dancing at the moment, I had my butt grabbed no less than five times and my crotch fondled at least twice.  I shuddered away from each contact and leaned heavily against the bar for safety.  A heavyset man with no shirt and a hairy chest approached me.  "Looking for your daddy?" he asked with a leer, leaning forward.  His breath smelled of alcohol and something worse that I couldn't identify.  My mind was a bit too foggy to respond right away, so he took my silence as permission and placed one hand on the inside of my thigh.  "I could break you in real good, kid," he half-growled, half-whispered near my ear.  My stomach revolted again and I almost fell to the ground.  

Suddenly, Lionel and Seth were there.  "He's with us," Lionel said calmly, looking the man in the eye.  The hairy man was big, but Lionel was tall and built like a boxer; the man turned away in search of easier prey.  I shivered as they helped me up against the bar again.  

"Here, let me order you a drink," Seth said, although in my opinion that was the last thing I needed.  "One Adios Motherfucker," he said to the bartender, who then checked his ID.  Meanwhile, I listened to the horrible music issuing forth from the speakers all around the room.  Now, real screams were tracked over the rest of the music, and each time a thin wail cut through the beat a set of dancers onstage would raise whips and lash them against each other.  Men who had never learned how to properly dance were cavorting half-naked like savages around an invisible fire; in dark corners, lit by that cold blue light, pairs of men were making out or worse.  I closed my eyes.  "Here you go," Seth said.  I heard the sound of a drink being pushed my way.  I opened my eyes and wished I hadn't; even looking at the drink made me feel ill.

"He doesn't look so good," Lionel said to Seth.  He had to shout to be heard over the screams.

"He's never been to a club like this," Seth replied.  "We took him to someplace a lot less wild last time.  There were more people our age there, too."

"Who picked this place?" Lionel asked.

"Rory and me," Seth replied.  "We've been here once before, several months ago, on Toddler Tuesday, when this place is eighteen and up."  He turned to me.  "Drink some," he said.  

I took a sip and breathed in deeply through my nose as the room spun.  That was a mistake, I realized, as the smells of sweat and leather assailed me.  The whole club smelled like one giant hairy man.  I wanted to vomit.

"Will you be okay if we go dance a bit?" Seth asked me.  I nodded slowly, trying to keep my head from falling off its shoulders.  He ginned, kissed me on the cheek, and made his way through the press of man-flesh into the center of the dance floor.  I couldn't help but imagine him in the center of the imaginary flames, with all these huge and slavering men dancing around him.  I nursed my drink and slowly finished it off.  My entire body was numb and everything was indiscernible in the overwhelming blue haze by the time Seth and Lionel, accompanied by a few of the other guys, made their way out of the press.  By then, the parts of me that could still form conscious thought wanted out.  "You doing alright?" Seth asked me.  In the blue light it was hard for him to see how pale I was, I imagined.  I nodded grimly again, though I was near to stumbling out on my own, if I could find where the door was and walk there unaided.  They vanished again.  This time, more men came my way and pawed me, often without even bothering to speak; they could see how drunk I was.  The next hour was a blur of drums and screams and leather and leering bearded faces and calloused hands groping at my crotch and roughly inside my shirt.  I was helpless, but the men usually moved on after the bartender gave them a stern look.  A few of them bought me drinks and waited until I'd gulped them down before feeling me up and leaving.  When Seth emerged again, even had I been sober I would've had a hard time counting the number of men that had approached me while they were away.  

"I need to go," I said through suddenly-chattering teeth.  I was so cold.  Each scream hurt my ears and my heart was racing in my chest.  Seth spent a few more minutes gathering everyone up—several hours had gone by at this point, though I was unaware of the passage of time—but he left Lionel to watch over me in his absence.  Finally, after everyone was back around the bar, Seth and Lionel helped me outside.  I couldn't walk straight, and my body was trembling uncontrollably, but eventually we all boarded the bus, which was empty except for two homeless men and smelled like urine, and stumbled back up into Seth's flat.  The boys fell to drinking and I walked into the bedroom, falling across the bed.  I had no idea how much alcohol I'd had, but I knew it was far, far more than I'd ever drank before.  Images filled my mind as I sat there.  There was Taylor, walking with me on the beach, and I heard him tell me that Seth would let me stay if he got to fuck me every night.  Then there was a man from the club, his face ferocious as he pushed into me, and I screamed as the music started and he tore me apart.  Then there was Julian, his face sad as he threw rocks shaped like tombstones into the sea, and then Jared, in the middle of a vast body of water, waving one suntanned arm at me helplessly as he drowned beneath the waves.

Midway through the evening's proceedings—I glanced at the clock and saw that it was after three in the morning—Seth came into the room.  "So, you ready to take me inside of you?" he asked.  I could see his erection straining against his jeans and a hungry look in his eyes.  He ran one hand up the back of my leg and along my butt.  

It took me near on a minute to form a coherent sentence.  "Not now," I said, the words thick and slurred.

"Jesus Christ," Seth said.  "Here we even left the club early cause you're so fucked up and now, when everyone's out there fucking on my floor and spilling all my booze, you still won't just lift your legs a bit and let me fuck you?"

"Dunno, Set," I murmured.  "Need t' walk."  I stumbled up from the bed and headed for the door.

"Fine, go fucking take a walk," Seth said.  "Go on, get the fuck out."  I nodded and stumbled out the door.  My vision was fuzzy and tears were running down my face, but I managed to make it to the stairwell and I half, walked, half fell down to the ground level.  I let myself out and took off in the direction of the Haight.

I have no idea how far I got before I was suddenly doubled over against a lamppost and retching into the gutter.  I felt as through I threw up everything inside of me.  I stumbled up and took a few halting steps further, crossed the street in a hunched shuffle, and threw up again at the next corner.  After that, I couldn't walk anymore, so I laid down against the curb for awhile, until my body stopped shaking so badly.  It was cold again, even though I had put on my jacket.  Finally, the shaking subsided enough for me to fall asleep.  My last thought before darkness swept in was that if a car came too close to the curb, I wouldn't mind at all.          

Three chapters left.
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